It wasn’t my storm!
The storm wasn’t anywhere near us. It was, in fact, over 35 miles across the dry hot desert hovering over the small town of Quartzsite, Arizona. Quartzsite sits along Interstate 10. It’s that little town you drive through about 10 miles east of the California border. If you were to stop you would find a friendly community of retirees who spend their time exploring the desert, organizing community events, dabbling in politics and prepping for disasters. Maybe that’s why storms always hit Quartzsite but never traveled north to the town I was living in at the time, Parker, Arizona. The storms were testing…
I had just finished putting my kids to bed when I saw the first flash of lightening. Excited, I rushed to the window, expecting to see dark Monsoon clouds looming overhead. Nope. Nothing.
You can’t touch me!
The dark clouds were nothing but a wall of disappointment stretched across the horizon, mocking me. “You can’t touch me.” Sure, they were spewing bright flashes of lightning like an angry mother whose children won’t go to sleep but they were too far away to bring cool relief. With a turned down mouth I settled into my own bed and pouted about the unfairness of how Quartzsite always gets the rain but Parker never gets anything (you have to whine aaaaannnythiiiing like a 5 year old would. It really helps to set the mood).
There I was, just about to fall asleep to the sound of my nice, cool air conditioning when I noticed a little flicker of the hall light. Just a little. Just enough to make me think about replacing the bulb in the morning because it was probably just the bulb going out and not the storm (say it with a snicker. It’s fun that way) coming in.
A few minutes later, I wake up to the stifling heat of a low insulated house that’s gone minutes without cool air. It’s like the great desert saw weakness and sucked every last drop of cool conditioned air out of the smallest cracks in my weather proofed doors within seconds. It was hot. It was sticky. I was miserable. Grudgingly I walked to the window, expecting to see the progression of the storm at my doorstep. What? It’s still in Quartzsite? The Monsoon settled over the small town and unleashed its mighty fury without moving. Then why is my power out?
I did the only thing a girl could do, I turned on my scanner and opened Twitter and Facebook to see if there were clues about what was going on. Twitter was quiet and Facebook had a couple of “Why is the power out” posts but the scanner was chirping with activity.
“Yeeeeaaaaah, uuuh, looks like we have a couple of poles down along the 95 (highway connecting Parker to Quartzsite).” “We are getting calls of localized flooding and running washes along Tyson. Can you send someone over to check that out?” “(Fire Department call tones…) Station 33, possible car in a wash, cross streets of Tyson and Wells Rd.” “Dispatch can you notify APS that it looks like 15 poles are down along 95. Half of them are after Tyson Rd and it is completely flooded so let them know accessibility will be an issue.”
You get the picture.
What started out as a disappointing storm for me was turning into a real emergency for the people of Quartzsite. The calls kept coming in. Trailers had damaged roofs, cars had broken windows, travelers were stranded in the night, medical calls, assistance calls; the town of Quartzsite quickly became overwhelmed.
This went on for a couple of hours. I was still hot, I was still sticky but my kids remained asleep and I was safe from flooding and wind, unlike the residents of Quartzsite. I thought of them and what they would wake up to in the next few hours. Not many people outside of Arizona realize how destructive Monsoon storms can be. Microbursts (wind that quickly bursts downwards from a Monsoon cloud) can generate wind speeds higher than 170 mph. The typically hit a small area, less than 2.5 miles in diameter. Anything more than that is a Macroburst. What hit Quartzsite was a Microburst and it dumped a lot of water. I wish I had kept the clippings of the storm damage when I moved from Parker to Phoenix. I remember pictures of trailer roofs being torn off, power poles laying in the street, washes that overflowed into yards and undermined foundations, a car still stuck in a wash, covered in mud and desert debris. Some residents posted pictures on Facebook.
Over the next few days, APS worked long hours to repair the downed poles and restore power to the community. For 48 hours, some parts of the town were without power while I only had to suffer through 12 hours before my power was restored. In Parker, local government agencies got themselves ready to support the town. We thought of shelters, food supplies, games for kids, generators for emergency power for people on medical equipment. The call never came. Why? Because the small community of Quartzsite was prepared. They were resilient! These storms don’t phase them! They already had shelters set up in a couple of churches with back-up generators. Residents with medical needs that required power either self-evacuated or had community help getting to their shelters. They cooked for each other, played games with the kids, entertained and told stories and made plans to clean up after the power was restored and roads were cleared.
I realized the storms don’t come to Quartzsite because the residents are prepared; the residents are prepared BECAUSE THE STORMS COME TO QUARTZSITE!
Talk about an Ah-HA moment (you are probably saying, well duh!). A small community of less than 4,000 people came together to prepare, respond and recover. It didn’t take a major emergency preparedness campaign; it took their own personal experience and community mindedness. First responders, emergency management, public health, public works and town and county officials were freed up to assist with recovery, clean up and mitigation for the next storm.
The residents of Quartzsite taught me a few lessons.
- Monsoon storms can be very destructive. Don’t underestimate their power.
- Personal preparedness starts with experience. I admit that I am not all that prepared. I still have that “it won’t happen in Arizona” mindset because I’ve never personally been in an emergency that stressed my preparedness supplies (I have about a day or two but often run out of stuff before restocking).
- Emergencies don’t have to happen to you directly for you to be affected. If the power restoration took more than 12 hours, I would have been in a pickle.
- Community resiliency (ability to bounce back) starts with and is dependent upon community, not government. Yes, governmental agencies play an important role but the community heals faster when it comes together.
Resiliency starts at home with you, me and our community. Next month is Arizona’s Monsoon Awareness Week. Watch for tips on being prepared and increasing your disaster resiliency.